In the fall of 1853 John Mix Stanley began a six-month stint as an illustrator with the Pacific Railroad Survey in Washington Territory, led by Isaac I. Stevens, governor of the Territory. The purpose of the expedition was to project a northern rail route from St. Paul, Minnesota, to Puget Sound. The journey took the survey north of the Oregon Trail to Fort Union, the region inhabited by the Blackfoot (or Blackfeet) tribe in what is now Montana, and northward into Canada. The Blackfoot Indians had encountered few white men beyond fur traders (although George Catlin (1796–1872) had already painted them in Fort Union in 1832); they had not sent a delegation to Washington and were considered hostile. Barter for a Bride, one of Stanley’s finest surviving works, was probably painted between 1854 and 1860, after the survey.1Viola et al., 140. See also Tyler, 203; Julie Schimmel, “John Mix Stanley and the Imagery of the West in Nineteenth-Century American Art” (Ph.D. diss., New York University, 1983), 230–31. Truettner, 20 and 184.
The painting represents a courtship ritual among the Blackfoot. The mounted brave brings gifts to the chief or his daughter, who reclines on the hillock. These are borne on two travois—sledges made of a net between two poles—pulled by two horses. In the far distance, beneath an atmospheric sky, is the Great Falls of the Missouri. The family group around the chief is depicted with both informality and dignity. Within the pyramidal group, Stanley paints closely observed facial types and expressions, probably based on his use of the daguerreotype to record his Indian sitters.2Unlike Catlin who, of course, did not have access to the Daguerrean camera (the process was first published in 1839), Stanley did not paint his Indians directly but later, in the studio, from sketches and daguerreotype images. He was “one of the earliest photographers of the Indian” (Viola et al., 138). The attitude of the young girl seems rather blasé to the modern eye, although it is doubtful that Stanley intended to be humorous.
This fine achievement makes the loss of many of Stanley’s Indian paintings especially poignant. On January 24, 1865, approximately 150 of his canvases, on display in the Smithsonian “Castle” while awaiting a congressional decision on their proposed purchase, were destroyed in a fire that swept the building.3Ibid., 142–43. Barter for a Bride, a painting later than those lost to the fire, has additional significance for the Department of State’s Collection: the artist was the grandfather of Mrs. Dean (Alice Stanley) Acheson, wife of the secretary of state (1949–53) under President Truman. Mrs. Acheson wrote a book on Stanley.
Excerpted from Jonathan L. Fairbanks. Becoming a Nation: Americana from the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State. New York: Rizzoli, 2003.